Whether you’re in school now, or have been finished for a while, you can imagine what a typical day school day is like – rushing to class, shifting between engagement and boredom, interactions with other students and teachers (both positive and negative). 

Now imagine what a typical day would be like, if you are at school with an empty stomach or having spent the night before sleeping outside, in an ATM vestibule, your car, on a friend’s couch or a parking garage. What if you didn’t sleep at all because you didn’t feel safe or couldn’t get warm? Imagine how hard it is to stay awake in class the next afternoon – the safest and warmest place to take care of your body’s need for sleep – and how you feel when your teacher interprets this as a sign of disrespect, and you are reprimanded for falling asleep. Consider how your experience of school might shift because you’ve fallen behind in your classes picking up extra shifts at work to pay your rent, or because you experienced a mental health crisis and spent a week unable to leave your room, followed by three days in the hospital. What if you missed a crucial exam because you were participating in a court proceeding or trying to figure out how to get access to welfare and housing on your own?

For students who are experiencing homelessness or housing precarity what we have just described is a common reality. And this reality makes it extraordinarily difficult for young people to maintain positive and meaningful connections to school.

What do we know? 

20% of Canada’s homeless population is made up of young people between13-24 years of age, with at least 35,000-40,000 youth experiencing homelessness in any given year. The inability to effectively address youth homelessness represents Canada’s most urgent youth equity issue. Research is unambiguous: homelessness rapidly deteriorates young people’s health, and homeless youth experience strikingly higher mortality rates than housed youth; furthermore, young people who are vulnerable to systemic forces of exclusion (e.g., racism, colonialism, trans- or homophobia) also experience homelessness at disproportionately high rates. 

Beyond housing, enabling strong and meaningful connections to school is one of the most efficient and effective interventions to ensure young people are integrated in and contribute to their communities, and experience a sense of purposefulness and wellbeing throughout adulthood. But young people who are experiencing homelessness have difficulty sustaining a connection to school – in a large part because mainstream programs have not been designed to accommodate the instability that comes with experiences of acute poverty and housing precarity or homelessness.

In a Canadian survey of homeless and precariously housed youth, the drop-out rate for homeless youth was 53.2%, compared to a national average of 9%. Some studies indicate that drop-out rates are actually far higher than that, with up to 90% of homeless youth disengaging from school. There is a pressing need to ensure Canada’s most structurally vulnerable young people experience barrier-free and continuous access to education throughout their youth – that is, until they are at least 24 years of age. 

To meet this need, we need to offer young people multiple opportunities to (re)engage with education – from targeted, no-barrier street-level educational services like the Carriage House to increasingly structured low-barrier programs like PACE, and bridging programs between secondary and post-secondary initiatives to ensure that young people have access to the range of opportunities available to them through our post-secondary system. 

There are clear links between education and stability for young people – particularly given recent labour market shifts in Canada. Today – due to rising costs of living, which continue to outpace opportunities for full-time, well-paid employment -- young people are living with their parents for longer than ever. In cities like Toronto, 62.6% of young adults (20-24) are living with a parent. In a city like Peterborough, where average rents for a one bedroom are upward of $1000, young people have to navigate similar difficulties in transitioning to independent living – particularly where they do not have the basic certifications and skills required to effectively enter the labour market. Furthermore, homeless and precariously housed youth are more likely to face barriers around mental health, malnutrition and health issues. They are also more likely to report being bullied in school. We need to create an active system of support for these young people to keep them connected to school.

When we don’t ensure that young people who face homelessness are staying engaged in education, we are setting them up to fail. High-school drop-outs have shorter life expectancies, are at greater risk of chronic illnesses, experience poverty and social inclusion, are less likely to be able to secure employment, especially as workers are increasingly expected to have post-secondary education to enter the labour market. 

What can help? 

First, wherever possible, young people should be prevented from experiencing homelessness. Many young people who are at-risk of homelessness are still in school; schools are key sites where the introduction of timely and sensitive interventions can save young people from experiencing street-involvement or having to use an emergency shelter. The Upstream Project is a collaborative early intervention model, involving schools and community agencies, which seeks to improve young people’s sense of wellbeing and connections to school, as well as prevent them from experiencing homelessness. This Canadian program is based on a partnership between the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, A Way Home Canada and Raising the Roof. It is inspired by the successful Geelong Project in Australia – a cross-sectoral intervention, which works to keep young people in school, housed and out of the youth criminal justice system. 

Second, even as youth-serving organizations and public systems make the shift towards prevention, some young people will experience periods of profound instability – including housing instability. Prioritizing prevention over crisis-intervention does not mean that emergency services will no longer be needed. Similarly, providing young people with stable housing does not mean that every other aspect of their life immediately clicks into place. Even where communities prioritize safe and appropriate housing for youth, young people who have recently been homeless or are experiencing intense instability will benefit from access to no-barrier educational services. 

A no-barrier program offers a flexible schedule, which accommodates young people’s quickly evolving lives. Young people are not punished or excluded for missing school; rather, they are actively supported to participate as fully as they are able to. To achieve this, no-barrier programs often include things like food, access to mental health supports, addictions supports, reproductive and other health supports and legal aid.  To improve accessibility, they are often associated with youth shelters and targeted youth housing initiatives. They offer continuous enrollment – meaning young people can start work towards a secondary school credit at any time throughout the year. While they are working to find stability, youth need to be engaged with education in a way that makes sense for them—the right services can keep things on track. Once young people are stably housed (e.g., no longer using emergency shelters or crashing with friends) in housing initiatives that are developmentally and culturally appropriate, then we can work on transitioning young people towards more mainstream educational services. Here, youth will still benefit from teachers who work with them, help with transitions after missing classes, offer mental health supports and have an understanding of how homelessness and housing precarity affects youth. This role is often best played by Student Support Teams in mainstream schools – people who understand and can help schools respond to the challenges associated with poverty and housing instability for youth. Finally, in today’s ever tightening labour market, we need to ensure young people have access to a range of post-secondary opportunities, including apprenticeships, university and college programs. For many young people, bridging programs (e.g., where high school students have an opportunity to take a university or college-level course with supports) enable sustained transitions towards post-secondary and labour market opportunities. 

Where do we see a useful model in practice?

The Carriage House in Peterborough, Ontario has been in operation for over fifteen years. It provides a space for students to continue and complete their education. It works in partnership with PACE and other local schools to ensure that young people are able to continue their education via literacy basic-skills pre-credit programming, independent studies, or mainstream programming as they achieve housing and other forms of stability in their lives. Furthermore, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (KPRDSB) – in partnership with Fleming College – also offers a successful dual credit bridging program, which supports young people to make an effective transition from independent study programs (like the ones offered at PACE) to post-secondary opportunities. We need all three types of programs in the community to ensure that all young people experience equitable access to education. 

David Haw, former Executive Director and founder of Peterborough’s Youth Emergency Shelter (YES), recalls that the Carriage House program was created when the KPRDSB asked YES to provide an alternative education program for students who were enrolled in school, but were not meeting attendance regulations or staying engaged. At that time, mainstream school environments were not supporting these young people to gain credits or graduate. According to KPRDSB Superintendent of Education responsible for Adult and Alternative Education, the creation of multiple entry points to the Education system currently allows the board to meet the evolving needs of all young people, especially those who experience structural barriers to educational opportunities. This position corresponds with one held by the current Director of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, and former Director of Education in the KPRDSB, Rusty Hick, who "believes strongly that student and organizational success are the direct result of collaborative relationships with all partners in the education of young people: parents, staff and community, and that these relationships are the foundation for student achievement and shared accomplishment"

Recommendations for improvement in Ontario 

Despite great gains, we want to shine a light on three changes, which would greatly improve accessibility to education for young people experiencing homelessness: 

  1. Working in partnership with community-based organizations and other youth serving agencies (e.g., child welfare organizations), communities should adopt school-based interventions programs through which young people at-risk of disengaging from school and experiencing homelessness are identified and offered housing, and educational and social supports. 
  2. School attendance monitoring practices, which require that young people are de-enrolled from schools after 15 consecutive days of non-attendance, are at odds with the incredible social and material instability associated with street life and add a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy for young people seeking to re-engage in school after a period of absence. To reduce barriers to educational participation for precariously housed youth, this practice must be changed to better ease of access to educational services for youth seeking to re-engage. 
  3. Independent studies and alternative education programs seeking to engage the province’s most educationally precarious youth require high adult to youth ratios. A combination of teachers and child and youth workers best enables the programs to support the educational and social needs of students. As such, per student funding allocations for these programs should be greater than in mainstream schools. 
  4. All communities across the province need to design and implement a range of high-quality culturally-relevant educational initiatives, which engage young people who have disengaged or are at-risk of disengaging from school. We need multiple pathways into secondary and post-secondary educational opportunities, such that we are ensuring full and equal access to education for all of Ontario’s youth.
Naomi NicholsAssistant ProfessorMcGill University
Jayne MalenfantResearch AssistantYork University; The Homeless Hub